Last week I finished a freelance gig that started in mid-July. It was an intense gig with long hours and many working weekends. On the weekends where I didn’t have to work, I was on call.
It was tough and stressful and often miserable. There were good times too and I met good people there.
I’ve been thinking in the last few days how I got through it. Because, honestly, without going into details, it was pretty miserable. And it meant not having a Chicago summer.1
Here are some of the reasons I didn’t quit:
- It’s only 3.5 months, anyone get through something like that.
- You made a commitment, keeping your word is important.
- The money is really good.
- I need the money.
- I don’t want to let the team down.
- I’m learning a lot.
- I’m working for an important cause; it’s important that I do my part.
Those are all good reasons, right?
What’s interesting is that depending on who I’m talking to, I might offer a different reason for why I did it. We tailor the stories we tell, depending on the audience, and I think for two reasons: one is to make the story more interesting and two is to make ourselves sound better.
The story you tell yourself about why you are doing it, that’s what gets you through.
And all of those stories worked for me at one point or another during the experience. But the one that persisted, the one that really kept me going was about the freedom. I’m sacrificing a lot of freedom right now for a lot more freedom down the road.
And sitting here on a Friday morning with nowhere to be and nothing to do, I have to say that I made the right choice. That sweet sweet taste of freedom, the freedom to work on whatever I want. I have about three to six months of runway before I have to take another job (assuming I don’t pick up any new freelance work) and that means I’m free to write every morning, for hours at a time.
I could jump on the train and fly to another city right now if I felt like it. I’m not going to, but I like the feeling.
I spent June directing a feature film, then I went to Scotland for a week in July and then started the job when I got back ↩
Reminders for myself as I return to daily work (writing):
- Work every day. Compound interest. The Daily.
- Work with purpose. Deliberate practice.
- Work deeply.
- Process over results.
- Take risks. Stop playing it safe.
- Dream big.
- Ship your work.
What am I forgetting?
The consensus from Austin Film Festival (and honestly, anyone working in Hollywood that I’ve ever talked to or heard on a podcast) was that only two matter: if you’re a finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship or at AFF.
At least 90% of of these contests exist to make money, not to help you. They won’t get you an agent and they won’t impress people.
Please stop throwing your money away.
I wrote a detailed guide for indie producers on how to navigate the SAG process from application to post-production. There’s a lot of practical information in it, gleaned from my own experience dealing with SAG contracts. And it lays out everything you need to do, in the correct order.
The SAG process is actually pretty easy to navigate once you understand it and have gone through it once. The goal of the guide is to take away the anxiety and uncertainty for people new to the process so they don’t have to fear working with the union.
I’m selling it rather than giving it away for free because, well, it was a lot of work to put together. At only $25, it’s an absolute steal if it saves you ten hours and a few headaches.
If you’re working on a short film or an ultra low budget feature (under $250k budget) and you’re dealing with SAG for the first time, then check it out.
I was in Austin last week for the Austin Film Festival. It was a great time. The centerpiece of the festival is the four-day screenwriting conference, which means panels, networking, and parties.
As an aside: some of the panels were great and some were just OK. The panels I didn’t like were mostly because of a moderator that couldn’t or didn’t seem to understand the audience and what we wanted to hear. Moderating is an underrated skill.
On one of the panels, a literary manager spoke of the difference between skill and talent.
Basically he said, you need both to succeed as a screenwriter.
But there are a lot of people that have good careers with lots of skill and not much talent. These are writers who are not necessarily visionaries, but they are skilled in writing in someone else’s voice or in executing a formula. They would tend to work on less innovative shows or movies. They are probably what you would call a hack? I don’t know, I don’t really go around calling people hacks. The manager didn’t use that term.
People with lots of talent and no skill on the other hand, they can’t succeed. You need SOME skill. Actually, you need a fair amount. If you have no skill, then your talent is squandered. It can’t be harnessed. You have things to express but don’t know how to express them skillfully. Great stories, poorly told. Etc.
The high-skill, low-talent person, well, they can tell the hell out of a not great story.
A genius is someone with extraordinary talent (talent encompasses vision and intelligence and creativity and many other traits).
I’m simplifying a bit obviously.
Here’s a 2×2:
Obviously my design skills are low-skill, high-talent.
Can you become more skilled? Yes, definitely, that’s just deliberate practice over a long period of time.
Can you become more talented? ASKING FOR A FRIEND. Just kidding. I don’t know. I imagine that talent is an amalgam of many factors: genetics, upbringing, openness, what you read and who you spend time with and what your influences are and what you see and know about the culture and history and so many other factors with a dose of just general intelligence thrown in.
I love good content.
I’m a content creator.
This is good content.
Have you watched the show on Netflix? It’s such good content.
It’s hard being a content creator today.
As a content creator, I
I love content.
Mmmm Netflix has so much good content.
Did you see Sorry to Bother You? It was great content!
I saw Eight Grade I thought it was great content.
What the fuck is content?
Content is a commodity.
Stop saying content.
I just got the first cut of my feature film this week from the editor in NY.
I still don’t have a title so it’s called Dinner Party. Still untitled. It’s a rough assembly of the first 32 minutes.
Watching rough cuts, especially that first one, is never really pleasant. Mostly I was dreading it, dreading that it would be bad or stupid or terrible or a waste. That’s self-doubt of course, but the fear is real. Sometimes what you make is not good.
Some of it works really well, some of it needs work. I’m relieved. It’s going to be OK. With a lot of work, it might be better than OK or perhaps good or very good or excellent or even great. I won’t know until we put in the work.
I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…
Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.
They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).
The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.
Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.
The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.
Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).
Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).
The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.
Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.
Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.
What about the film festival, Robert?
This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.
The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.
Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.
I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.
I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.
It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.
The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.
I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?
I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.
Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).
I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).
But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.
Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.
WHAM, a short film that I wrote and directed last summer is premiering this weekend at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, AL. It’s a great festival and I’m really excited to be a part of it, in fact so excited that I’m waking up at 4am on Friday to fly in early so I can enjoy a full day of meeting people and seeing great films. If you’re near Birmingham this weekend, check it out.
The film will also screen in Washington, DC at the very excellent DC Shorts festival on September 8 and 10. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it back home for the screenings because of work, but it’s my first screening near my hometown in Maryland and it feels good to get to show m friends and family back home what I’ve been working on for the last few years.
And finally, it’s coming to Chicago for the first time on September 22 at 4pm at the Middle Coast Film Festival. I love this festival. The Deadline premiered there last year, so it will always have a special place in my heart (they programmed Off Book too). I’m a little sad that they moved it from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago because I liked the excuse to take a road trip. It’s screening at the Davis Theater. Come see it and have a drink at Carbon Arc if you’re in town.
I released this earlier this year and completely forgot to post it here. The Deadline, my first short film, is now available to the public: